What English language owes to the textile industry

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column dissecting English language

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Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 18 Apr 2024, 6:57 PM

In the last couple of columns, we looked at words for various fabrics that originated, respectively, in India and France. But the rest of the world has also made its share of contributions to the English language’s storehouse of textile-related terms.

“Harlequin”, originating from the Commedia dell’arte, a theatrical movement in 16th-century Italy widely embraced across Europe, was associated with humorous and playful figures like court jesters. Harlequins sported costumes crafted by stitching together fabric scraps, forming elongated diamond patterns. Textile designers employ the term “Harlequin” to depict a diamond motif characterised by elongated shapes positioned in a vertical arrangement. The diamonds typically feature high-contrast colours. Harlequin prints frequently grace the fashion runways as various designers incorporate this timeless aesthetic into their collections.

“Argyle” rose to popularity in the United Kingdom and subsequently in the United States after World War I. The distinctive Argyle design, characterised by a diamond-shaped pattern featuring two or more colours on fabric, has its origins in the Clan Campbell of Argyll in western Scotland. This pattern, initially employed for kilts and plaids, as well as patterned socks worn by Scottish Highlanders, gained prominence as early as the 17th century. “Argyle”, sometimes spelled as “Argyll”, features a diamond-shaped design. In general, Argyle patterns exhibit layers of intersecting motifs, contributing to a sense of three-dimensional motion and texture.

The “Herringbone” pattern has its roots in the Roman Empire, where it was employed in the construction of roads. This unique fabric pattern also found its place in the historical textiles of Ireland, frequently appearing in traditional tweed suits. The zigzag elements on the cloth are interrupted by alternating colours in both directions. The design known as “Herringbone” gets its name from its resemblance to the skeletal pattern of a herring fish. Although Herringbone fabrics traditionally utilise wool, they are now crafted from a variety of fiber combinations, including cotton, thick wool, and linen.

“Gingham”, also known as “Vichy check”, is a type of cotton fabric that emerged in the 1610s. It is crafted by weaving plain-dyed yarns together. The term “Gingham” is believed to have its roots in the Dutch word gingang, which is a trader’s interpretation of the Malay (Austronesian) term ginggang, signifying “striped”. Another theory suggests that the fabric we now recognise as Gingham might have been produced in Guingamp, a town located in Brittany, France. It is speculated that the fabric could have taken its name from this particular town. In the 17th century, Gingham, initially arriving in Europe, featured stripes; however, its current identity is defined by a chequered design.

“Batik”, originating from Java, Indonesia, is a time-honoured practice of dyeing fabric using wax-resistant techniques. The term “batik” finds its roots in the Javanese language, with bathikan also signifying “drawing” or “writing” in Javanese. The earliest English documentation of the term “batik” dates back to 1880 in the Encyclopædia Britannica, where it was spelled as “battik”. This art form has historical significance in the Indonesian archipelago, with variations like mbatik, mbatek, batik, and batek emerging during the Dutch colonial era.

“Brocade”, originating in the 1560s, refers to a luxurious intricately ornamented shuttle-woven fabric, commonly crafted from coloured silks and occasionally incorporating threads of gold and silver. The term is derived from the Spanish brocado, which aligns with the Italian broccato, meaning “embossed cloth”. Brocade is commonly crafted using a draw loom. This involves a supplementary weft method, where decorative brocading is achieved through an extra, non-structural weft alongside the regular weft responsible for securing the warp threads, a technique that aims to create the illusion that the weave appears to have been embroidered.

“Damask”, derived from the ancient Syrian city of Damascus, refers to an expensive textile fabric characterised by intricate patterns. Historically, the fabric goes back to the Tang Dynasty in China, where it adorned luxurious textiles, such as silk, and was exclusively reserved for royalty and nobility; but it was traders from Damascus that introduced this fabric to Europe during the 11th century. Damask fabric is reversible, often incorporating a satin weave, and adorned with symmetrical motifs inspired by the natural world.

Enough of fabric-related terms. We’ll look for unclothed words next week!



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